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Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1833, the son of a double bass player in the Hamburg city orchestra. His first music lessons were with his father, and the age of seven he became a pupil of Otto F. W. Cossel, under whom he quickly became a proficient pianist and appeared in a public concert in 1843 at the age of ten. When Cossel noticed Brahms’ eagerness to compose, Cossel’s own teacher, Eduard Marxsen, undertook Brahms’ training in musical theory. Brahms gained experience as a composer and arranger for the Alster Pavilion orchestra. This helped train his sense of musical effect and developed his talent for improvisation. In 1848, at the age of fifteen, Brahms gave his first solo concert as a pianist.
After leaving school, Brahms added to his living by playing in sailors’ taverns and dancing saloons. In 1853, he toured North Germany with the Hungarian gypsy violinist Eduard Remenyi, composed one of his first major works, the C Major piano sonata, Op. 1, and began his friendship with the great violinist Joseph Joachim, who arranged for him to meet Liszt and Schumann, who prophesied his genius. Schumann’s attempted suicide and subsequent madness affected Brahms greatly and is reflected in his D minor piano concerto and in his other works of that period.
Additionally, he was in love with Clara Schumann, although neither of them pursued this relationship or the possibility of marriage after Schumann’s death, and Brahms remained a bachelor all his life.
In 1857, Brahms became director of music to the Prince of Lippe-Detmold, a part time post which gave him time to compose two orchestral serenades, the first version of his C minor piano quartet, Op. 25, and to complete his D minor piano concerto. He remained in Hamburg until 1863 when he was invited to become conductor of the Singakademie in Vienna. Failing to win the post of conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic, he accepted the Vienna post and, except for tours and holidays, remained in Vienna for the rest of his life.
In 1868, his real choral masterpiece, the German Requiem, Op. 45 was finished. He had begun composing it in 1857. The real impetus to finish it came out of the shock of his mother’s death, and in February, 1865 he had begun work on it again, completing it in 1868. It was first performed, in its completed form, in 1871, and Brahms was hailed by the public as a patriot. In 1872, he was appointed artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The orchestral version of his Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale (formerly known as the Variations on a Theme of Haydn) was given its premiere by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1873. In 1875, Brahms resigned from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and continued work on his first symphony. This symphony, begun when Brahms was in his early twenties, was not completed until he was 43. After its premiere in Karlsruhe, it was soon hailed as Beethoven’s “Tenth”. Comparison with Beethoven did not deter him from completing his second symphony in 1877, his violin concerto in 1879, and his third and fourth symphonies in 1883 and 1884, respectively.
His later years enhanced his reputation as one of the greatest composers of the day with such works as the clarinet quintet and clarinet trio (1891), both written for the Meiningen clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld. In 1896, he attended the funeral of Clara Schumann in Bonn, a journey which damaged his already weak health. Cirrhosis of the liver was diagnosed and he died the following year in 1897 at the age of 64.
1. The New College Encyclopedia of Music by J. A. Westrup and F. L. L. Harrison, Revised by Conrad Wilson; W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1981
2. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie; MacMillan Publishers, Ltd., 1980